Baseball was the victim of a tragedy this morning, as José Fernández of the Miami Marlins died in a boating accident.
José Delfín Fernández -- I didn't have a record of what the D. stood for, but a commentor below did, thank you -- was born on July 31, 1992, in Santa Clara, Cuba. He grew up there, as a neighbor and friend of Aledmys Díaz, now the All-Star shortstop of the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2005, his stepfather defected to America. Only 13 years old on the 1st try, José made 3 attempts to defect, but was caught and jailed each time. In 2008, just 15, he made a 4th attempt, with his mother and sister. His mother fell overboard when the boat hit turbulent waters, and he had to dive into the water to save his mother's life. They all made it.
They joined his stepfather in Tampa, where he became a high school pitching star. He had to sue to regain his eligibility for his senior year, as he had attended the 9th grade in Cuba, but he won his case. He did this despite getting a free-agent offer from the Cincinnati Reds, essentially turning down a bonus of $1.3 million -- proving that he wasn't in baseball just for the money.
He was drafted by the Miami Marlins (then in their last year under the Florida Marlins name) in the 1st round in 2011, and accepted a signing bonus of $2 million. A Cuban defector playing ball in Miami? Aside from playing in a liberated Cuba (which still hasn't happened), this was as good as it could get for him.
Before the 2013 season, Baseball America, the definitive source for baseball prospects, rated him the 5th-best in all of organized baseball. He made his debut against the Mets at Citi Field on April 7. "I’ve been in jail," he told the Miami Herald before the game. "I’ve been shot at. I’ve been in the water. I’m not scared to face David Wright. What can he do?"
Wearing the Number 16 that he would keep, he started and pitched 5 innings, allowing 1 run on 3 hits, with 8 strikeouts. But Marlins manager Mike Redmond pulled him after 5, and the bullpen blew it, and the Mets won it in the bottom of the 9th, 4-3. What could Wright do? He hit a home run off one of the Marlin relievers, making the Mets' win possible. But that did not diminish the impact of Fernández's arrival in the major leagues.
He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2013, going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA, and a sizzling WHIP of just 0.979. He finished 3rd in the NL Cy Young Award voting. He pitched a perfect 6th inning in the All-Star Game at Citi Field.
He even hit a home run against the Atlanta Braves on September 11 of that year. But he flipped his bat and took his time trotting around the bases. Braves catcher Brian McCann, now with the Yankees, didn't like that, and started shouting at him, and a bench-clearing brawl erupted. But Fernández was not intimidated. I guess when you've been in a Cuban jail, a loudmouthed Atlanta Brave isn't going to faze you. They later made peace with each other.
He had a rare bad start in an Interleague game with the Tampa Bay Rays on May 27, but their manager, Joe Maddon (now the manager of the Chicago Cubs), said, "José Fernández might be the best young pitcher I've ever seen, at that age. I believe he will go far."
He battled injuries in 2014 and 2015, going just 4-2 and 6-1 respectively, on the either side of Tommy John surgery. But when he could pitch, his ERAs were still low: 2.44 and 2.92. He was back in form this season. He was 16-8, his ERA was a strong 2.86, and his WHIP 1.119, making him an All-Star for the 2nd time.
His pitches included a 4-seam fastball, a changeup, a sinker and a slurve. (I used to think "slurve" was a portmanteau of "slow curve," but it's actually one of "slider" and "curve," because it's a curveball thrown with the grip used for a slider.)
His last game was on September 20. He pitched 8 shutout innings in a 1–0 win over the Washington Nationals at Marlins Park. He should have started today, and had 1 more start this season afterward.
His career statistics were 38-17, 2.58, 1.054. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the pitcher in baseball's entire history whose performance at age 20 most statistically resembled his was Fernando Valenzuela. The 20th Century pitcher whose stats through his current age most resembled his was Mark Fidrych.
He had just turned 24. He was on a rising team in a city that doesn't always show it at the box office, but loves baseball. Today's Miami Herald called him "an electric fan favorite." What's more, he had a gorgeous girlfriend, Carla Mendoza, and was about to become a father for the first time.
He could have been told in sincerity what an infamous fictional Miami resident, Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino) in the 1983 remake of the 1932 gangster classic Scarface), was told in jest: "The world is yours."
In the middle of the night last night, José Fernández was killed in a boating accident off Miami Beach that also killed 2 others. The Coast Guard found the boat at about 3:15 AM, overturned on a jetty near Government Cut and South Pointe Park, and found 3 victims, 2 on top of the water, and 1 underneath the boat.
The cause of the crash is still under investigation, but the Coast Guard has said that none of the victims were wearing their life vests, suggesting that they didn't realize that they were in danger. The Coast Guard also said that they'd stopped the boat, belonging to a friend of several Marlins players, several times for safety inspections, and never found any infractions. They also said that there’s no evidence that alcohol or drugs played a role in the crash.
It appears from reports that they crashed into a jetty, similar to the boating accident on a Florida lake during 1993 Spring Training that killed Cleveland Indians pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews, and badly injured Bob Ojeda, one of the stars of the 1986 World Champion Mets who was trying to revive his career in Cleveland.
The Marlins canceled their game for today with the Braves. At the press conference announcing this, the Marlins' manager, former Yankee Don Mattingly, said, "When I think about José, I see such a little boy. The way he played, there was just joy with him." We can probably expect them to retire his Number 16. (UPDATE: Team owner Jeffrey Loria announced that the number was retired. Most likely, an official on-field ceremony will occur at their home opener.)
"His death is a huge loss for our community," Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said in a statement.
Fellow Cuban superstar Yoenis Céspedes had a Number 16 Mets jersey with "FERNANDEZ" made up, and hung it in the Mets' dugout before today's game with the Philadelphia Phillies. Another exciting young Cuban star, Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers, tweeted, "Hermano (brother), wherever you are, you know how much I loved you. Sin palabras. (Without words.) My heart is with the families."
Met manager Terry Collins said, "This is not only one of the greatest pitchers in the modern game, but one of the finest young men you'd ever meet. He played the game with passion and fun, and enjoyed being out there."
Met pitcher Jacob deGrom, now having to consider Tommy John surgery himself, added, "You never know how long you get to play this game. You don't want to take this for granted. And I don't think he did. Every day, he went out there and gave 100 percent, and he put it all out on the field."
His former antagonist McCann said, "It's sickening. One of those competitors you loved competing against, because you knew he was going to bring his best. He was one of the best pitchers in the game. What he did in a short amount of time was incredible."
Yankee manager Joe Girardi, who managed the Marlins for a year, but well before Fernández got there, never met him, but said, "I don't know how you ever get over it. It's going to be difficult around baseball today. Your thoughts are always going to go back to José, and the Marlins, and the community."
José Fernández's last tweet was on September 19, showing a picture of pregnant Carla Mendoza on the beach, saying, "I'm so glad you came into my life. I'm ready for where this journey is gonna take us together. #familyfirst"
The journey had just gone into high gear. Now, it has stopped, in a shocking way. A woman has lost the love of her life, a child will never know his or her father, many people lost a friend, a team lost a very talented, much-admired teammate, and baseball has lost a star who seemed destined to shine very bright. Now, we simply will never know.
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